The Intimacy Initiative 1/4: Talking
October 2011: Restart the fire in your marriage by following this four-point self-help plan. Step 1 is finding what's left you in lovemaking limbo—and why.
There are three parts in a marriage: you, your husband and your relationship. (No, your kids are not part of your marriage—not in the bedroom.) If the stork flew in with the babies and out with the intimacy, the problem may lie with any or all of these parts. The good news: the solution, too, lies with the two of you! Find out how six real couples crossed the marriage minefields.
Talk: one small step, one giant leap
Hit a dry spell in your marriage? Chances are, you're bang in the middle of a vicious cycle. "At the start, it was just exhaustion and pain," says Jyoti*, 29, "but soon, we were fighting so much that there was no question of resuming sex." Soon, Manav*, 34, and her were sleeping in different bedrooms. "The issues just kept piling up."
Feeling like Jyoti and Manav? Wondering how to break the cycle? Starting talking. Now.
Today: Make a date to chat
"We knew we had to end the cold war, but taking this step was the hardest part," says Manav.
So, what should you chat about?
* Yourselves: You and your sexuality are not separate beings. While you talk, you will realise that issues seemingly unrelated to your relationship are impacting it. These could be situational stuff, like exhaustion, being chained to work via a Blackberry, having a hectic social schedule or a lack of space. Or they can be emotional, like feeling unattractive after the baby weight, being depressed or feeling like you're stuck in a rut. Jyoti ended up telling Manav, "As noble as my role as a mother is, I barely feel human, let alone sexy." What's up with you?
* Your marriage: All aspects of your relationship will impact each other. Anger, distrust and other unpleasant matters will reduce your desire for intimacy... then add the lack of intimacy to the list of issues, and you're on a downward spiral. Intimacy is both an indication and prerequisite of a happy marriage. Says Rahul*, 32, "I discovered that an off-key joke I had made about another friend's stubborn baby weight had been playing on Natasha's* mind. I love her as she is, and couldn't figure out why she was angry for months... until our talk."
* Make a chat date at a private, comfy place. Stay away from the crowds and time-restrictions at a restaurant or the familiarity of your bedroom. And no phones, please.
* Talk honestly and freely, and be prepared to accept feedback with an unbiased and open mind. This won't be easy, but you've got to listen! The road back in to each other's arms will be dotted with awkward conversations, painful self-reckoning, and more than a few failed attempts.
* Note the points you two raise. You may discover that the problem is as simple as a lack of time or a minor relationship tear like forgetting an anniversary—focus on the bigger picture, and they're easily solved. Or, these points may be a surprisingly brutal critique of each other and your marriage—but don't worry, finding the problem is the first step to finding the solution.
* Tough, na? Don't worry, step 1 is the hardest, I promise. Just one last tough thing, okay? Cuddle. No matter how many landmines you've stepped on, how angry you are or how bad things seem right now. After all, you are doing this programme together, so a happier marriage is what you both want...
How hard is it to chat with your spouse? Tell us how you made the first move and what are the issues you uncovered? Write in if you need help starting out...
The Intimacy Initiative 2/4: Fixing
October 2011: In step 2 of this four-point self-help plan to bring back the intimacy to your marriage, learn that if you fix the rest, the sex will follow.
As I said last time, intimacy is both an indication and prerequisite of a happy marriage. First, it's an indication. If you're okay, he's okay, the marriage is okay—chances are, you're intimate and having sex. But if there are other issues, they will show up in your bedroom—and if one or both of you are unhappy with sex, it will impact the rest of your relationship... but, we'll get to that later.
Your exercise for today is about working towards changing five of your most major issues, not including the bedroom. It's a step-by-step guide to managing your life, really, and I've given a few common problems and examples of their common-sense solutions. Your relationship is unique: you may be dealing with some or all of these issues in varying degrees, and others that are unique to you. Others' solutions are just guidelines for you to adapt to suit your life and lifestyle... Remember, your answers lie with you.
Today: Plan to achieve your goals
The idea is to break five of your most major issues into bite-sized actions and their solutions. Remember, you are the problem-solver. Here's how.
Keyword: Right goals
* What is my problem? The five you choose should include yours and his individual situational and emotional issues, and issues in your marriage not related to sex. Of course, you're looking to deal with chronic issues and their symptoms, not a one-off incident where your social-drinker husband had a peg too many. Remember—if the bigger picture is a happier marriage, decide to make up, forgive and let go of the small things. "We didn't have the time or energy for anything at all, let alone each other," says Sonal*, 32. Sounds familiar? This is perhaps the most common reason for the post-baby dry spell... sex just isn't on the schedule.
* Why? Break it down and analyse. Sonal and Anshuman*, 40, found that they could break down the 'why' into some distinct parts: a) Her mornings were busy with taking care of Antara*, and cooking for the family; b) Her commute to and from a nine-hour day at the office added another three hours; and c) Their evenings were consumed with Antara and putting her to bed. A later riser than Sonal, d) Anshuman's two-hour commute and 12-hour work-day allowed him a little time with Antara, and none with Sonal or for the gymming he loved. Saturdays were for chores and friends, Sundays were with the grandparents. "When we broke it down like this, the answers seemed so obvious!"
* What's my goal? Flight attendant Natasha, 37, discovered her problem was with the way she looked. "We'd waited quite long to have our first child," she says. "The weight refused to go, so did the acne. I didn't feel sexy, and Rahul's joke about a friend's baby weight just played on my mind." Now, finding your goal is the trickiest. As with all other goals you've managed in your life, this needs to be specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely—SMART goals—with a gentle ‘acceptance of things you cannot change’.
Natasha gave herself six months to be acne-free and lose 10 kilos, at a modest 1.5 kilos a month; Sonal and Anshuman got a reality check. "Our choices didn't reflect how important our relationship is to us. We realised that we were choosing to put kids and career above a healthy relationship," he says. They reassessed their schedules and decided to work towards an hour of "quality time" with each other and two with Antara every day, and double on weekends, without compromising their jobs. Anshuman also wanted to squeeze in three hours a week at the gym. All thought these goals were SMART ones; ones that they could attain with minor changes to their lifestyles.
* How do I get there? By this step, your course of action should be pretty obvious. Map your plan of action to a time schedule, with quantifiable milestones to ensure you're on track. Easier if you maintain a daily planner.
"Some things were easy—I chucked my maternity undies and clothes, and bought some clothes in my new size," says Natasha. "So was the acne: I met a good dermat and followed up." Other things required persistence, like the four hours of walking a week. "Having a goal is inspiring and empowering," she says. "I changed my schedule slightly so I, not the maid, took Shail* to the park. I walked as he played." Says Rahul, "I could see her feel more in control from the get-go. Once I understood what she was working towards and how, I was as supportive as I could be."
Sonal and Anshuman had to make a bigger lifestyle change to reach their goals. "First, I realised that making tiffins and getting Antara ready for school was not 'quality time'," says Sonal. "I relinquished that to a maid, and we joined her for breakfast instead." "We also realised that long commutes were common to both our days. Neither wanted to change jobs, so we decided to move to a smaller house in a more expensive suburb midway for both," says Anshuman. "It is about prioritising, really."
On alternate nights, Anshuman, the night bird, takes up bedtime story duty, giving Sonal time to recharge for some couple time after the baby is asleep. On others, he goes to the gym, while Sonal puts Antara to bed. Every couple of weekends, Antara goes to her grandparents' homes without her parents. "Once we told our parents we were overextended, they were only too happy to babysit Antara to give us private time."
"It all seems so simple now," says Sonal. "The key is the right goals, and willpower!"
Does having this plan of action make you feel powerful? How do you see yourself achieving your goals? If you're having trouble following this step, write in for personal or community advice.
The Intimacy Initiative 3/4: Refreshing
October 2011: So, there's a problem with the sex? Step 3 of this simple four-point plan to revive the intimacy in your marriage, we tell you how to take sex from being part of the problem to being part of the solution.
I hope you've put the plan you made in step 2 into play, and are working on the situational, emotional and interpersonal issues that have impacted your intimacy. I bet your recent heart-to-heart and active problem-solving action-plan have given you and your relationship a booster shot, not only because you're working towards these life- and relationship-altering goals, but because you're feeling empowered while achieving them.
But what if the reason/one of the reasons you're not having sex—and that's showing in your relationship—is because the sex itself is, well, bad? How do you take sex from being a cause of unhappiness to its fullest potential as cement for your love and a source of joy. Read on...
Today: Clear the sex issues
So, what's wrong with the sex and how can you solve it? I discuss the most common issues, and their solutions. Modify these for your life, or find solutions to your problems though the 'what's the problem-why-what's my goal-how do I get there' system you learnt in step 2.
Keyword: It's simple
* "I'm bored," admitted Sandra*, 35, to Roy*, 37, her husband of 12 years. He was hurt... but relieved she'd said it first! Can passion survive the routine of a long-term relationship? Or must the spark fade over time? Biologically, it does, say sexual health experts, as contentment overshadows the thrill of new love. But, while it is natural to move on from the can't-keep-our-hands-off-each-other first days, a complete disinterest in sex not healthy or natural.
What's their simple solution? "We returned to the basics," says Roy. "We discovered that it was actually the basic romantic stuff that was missing—kissing, cuddling, being nude." Adds Sandra candidly, "We stopped taking each other for granted. We began dressing better, paying more attention to everyday intimacy and spending more time on foreplay. We added in some sex toys, porn and other new stuff." What's there to be shy—it's your bedroom! Sandra and Roy discovered that the more the effort they put in to the intimacy, the better the foreplay and sex... and the more the desire for it.
"If you're still in love, restarting good sex is easy!" promises Sandra. "And it just gets better once you start."
* "I've never wanted sex as much as he does," says Etee*, 33, "though it's not like I don't enjoy it." It's no wonder: studies have found that testosterone, one of the hormones responsible for sexual desire, is 20-40% higher in men than women. Add our social conditioning—good girls shouldn't like sex, and certainly shouldn't be 'good' at it—and the natural dimming of lust, and your husband ends up getting the "I'm too busy" turndown one time too many. "When we fought, Sohail* would end up calling me frigid, I'd call him a maniac."
What's their simple solution? "We realigned our expectations, and try avoiding the blame-game," says Sohail, 36. "Thrice a week is reasonable for both of us, and, even at the risk of making sex 'routine', we make it a point to include it in our schedules." Beams Etee, "I'm also actively shedding my inhibitions, and we're both enjoying the sex a lot more."
* "My sex drive's even worse after the baby arrived," said new-mom Jyoti. Not surprising. In addition to the lower testosterone, your hormone levels drop to near-menopausal levels after childbirth, further dampening libido. Your body also needs time to recover childbirth.
You can start having sex once you've healed—four weeks or when your doctor says so—but if you're still not feeling the mojo six months after you've stopped breast-feeding, get your hormone levels checked. (Also, watch out for other medication: birth control pills and meds for high BP, etc can interfere with libido and performance.)
Physical changes aside, a baby can be hard on your emotions too. "Though I didn't battle postpartum depression, I did feel completely non-sexy and asexual," Jyoti adds. "Manav had to deal with other adjustments—a whole new level of responsibility and no longer being the centre of my world."
What's their simple solution? Jyoti started working on her self-esteem and body-image issues in step 2, resuming work and social life, and exercising to get the endorphins going. To bring the spark back in to their bedroom, the couple went on a holiday, sans-baby. "At first it seemed unthinkable," confirms Jyoti, "but my mother convinced me to leave the baby with her and reconnect on a holiday. Tucked away in our hillside resort, we finally broke the spell!"
Tell me how you beat the baby bedroom blues... your real-life tips can help others. Can't find a solution yourself? Write in for one-on-one or community advice.
The Intimacy Initiative 4/4: Working
October 2011: In the last step of our simple four-point plan to intimacy, we tell you the mantras to keeping the magic in your marriage...
When you were first married, the sex was easy and the lust—fuelled by the excitement of adrenaline, pleasure-enhancement of dopamine and addiction of serotonin—did most of the work. A healthy, happy marriage is always a work in progress. As contentment sets in, you have to make a special effort to retain intimacy and sex.
Today: Make an ongoing effort
"When people say their marriage is important to them, their choices should reflect that," says Neeta*, 42, who's been in a happy marriage for over 20 years. "If you remember that, it's easy to prioritise yourselves and your relationship over schedules, careers and kids—and they don't need to be mutually exclusive."
Keyword: Small steps every day
1 Find the time. Always schedule time for your marriage. With today's lifestyles, are you taking your relationship for granted? Even if you're not in the mood or are exhausted, give in to each other's pleasure needs... sometimes.
2 Work on the intimacy. Flirting, touching, kissing—these are all important ways to connect with your spouse. Keep the connection alive, even in front of the kids (within limits, of course). Kids who grow up seeing happy, expressive parents are less likely to develop complexes around love and sex.
3 Stay sensual, stay sexual. Dressing up, a warm bath, aromatherapy are just a few ways to stimulate your senses. Why let parenthood impact your access to pleasure? Make an effort to entice your spouse, in and outside the bedroom.
4 Maintain a private, intimacy-friendly space. Even Feng Shui and Vaastu encourage you to keep your bedroom sacred and dedicated to yourselves. Babies are ready to leave your room at around three months, and teach them to knock in the night. Keep the toys and laptop out of your private space, and choose pinks and reds to encourage romance. Nikalank Jain, the brand architect at Yowoto, recommends "putting up happy photos of yourselves and your family. They help you keep perspective, even during the lows, and are visual reminders of what's important, what's achievable."
5 Chat to stay connected. There is no simpler way to ensure you're in sync than to talk, often and freely, about the mundane and the important. For biological and social reasons, this is harder for the men, who use far fewer words than women do—but it's important. "Talk every day and you'll never grow apart," says Neeta, who's been there, done that. "You can anticipate and solve problems if you know what's happening in each other's lives."
6 Never go to bed angry. Most women need to feel close to their husbands emotionally to desire sex. Men, on the other hand, generally need to feel close physically to invest more in to relationships. You'll have seen this language barrier during fights—many women will turn down sex until the argument is over and the two are connected again; men will often initiate 'make-up sex'. "Catch-22: you need to feel the love to have sex, he needs sex to feel loving," says Neeta.
Nip issues in the bud by not going to bed angry. Give some to get some, and don't be afraid or too proud to make—or accept—the first move.
I hope this programme has shown you just how easy it is to create a happy, intimate marriage. Share how it has helped you. You can also write in for one-on-one advice... I'll be happy to help you.
This series appeared on Yowoto—a now-defunct parenting website startup that I helped incubate as Editor-in-chief—in October 2011.
While I’m now a firm childless antinatalist, my politics weren’t fully formed when I took this short-lived assignment to explore the digital side of publishing (though it was never a good fit). Nonetheless, some of the articles I wrote at the time are interesting.